NASA's Curiosity Mars rover to 'lay the foundation' for search for life [Video]
The size of a small car, NASA's one-ton Curiosity Mars rover contains twice the number of scientific instruments as its predecessors, plus a drill that will allow it to bore into the Red Planet's rocks.
The car-size Curiosity rover, the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is slated to blast off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday (Nov. 26) after a one-day delay due to a rocket battery issue. The launch comes two years later than the MSL team had originally planned, a slip that ultimately increased the mission's lifetime costs by 56 percent.
But with Curiosity now sitting on the pad, nestled atop its Atlas 5 rocket, MSL's past issues are receding deeper into history. Most eyes are now on the rover's future — its quest to determine if Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
"This is a Mars scientist's dream machine," Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters on Nov. 10. "This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another planet, but it's actually the most capable scientific explorer we've ever sent out." [Photos: NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Rover]
A beast of a rover
NASA began planning MSL's mission in 2003. Over the past eight years, scientists and engineers developed, built and tested Curiosity, a robotic behemoth that will take planetary exploration to a new level.
At 1 ton, Curiosity weighs five times more than each of its immediate Mars rover predecessors, the golf-cart-size twins Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on the Red Planet in January 2004 to search for signs of past water activity.
While Spirit and Opportunity each sported five scientific instruments, Curiosity boasts 10, as well as a drill that will allow it to access the interior of Red Planet rocks.
The huge rover will use all of this gear to gauge the past and present habitability of its Martian environs. It will look for carbon-containing compounds — the building blocks of life as we know it — and assess what the Red Planet was like long ago.
MSL is not a life-detection mission, but it will lay the foundation for future efforts that could hunt for evidence of microbial Martians, officials said.
"We bridge the gap from 'follow the water' to seeking the signs of life," said Doug McCuistion, head of NASA's Mars exploration program.